If given Sophie's Choice, I bet most of us smartphone owners would rather lose our wallets than our mobile devices. After all, we carry far more sensitive information - private text messages, photos, contacts, passwords - in these pocket PCs than we do in our wallets, and none of it is insured the way a good old-fashioned credit card is. Furthermore, a savvy attacker doesn't even need physical access to your device to leech information.
Fortunately, there are plenty of good free or low-cost apps offering protection from attackers, pick-pocketers, snooping partners, and yes, even from yourself.
Mobile security threats aren't the same as they are on the PC. For one, malware - viruses, spyware, Trojans - is a pretty tiny threat. According to mobile security vendor Lookout, less than five per cent of Android owners have ever been infected, and that rate is even smaller in America, since most Android malware targets Russian and Chinese users.
Nowadays, vendors are more focussed on protecting your privacy from various elements in your device. For example, last fall a researcher discovered that carriers were tracking forensics data from Android users through a piece of bloatware called Carrier IQ. Within days, most of the major vendors had published apps identifying Carrier IQ.
Furthermore, most of those free, ad-monetised apps you download contain code for an ad network, some of which are a bit aggressive with the functions they perform on your device. Perhaps the best example is an ad network called "Apperhand" that secretly redirects your search queries to a pay-per-click engine, places a search icon on your mobile desktop without your permission, and pushes excessive ads to your Notifications Bar. Apperhand isn't malware in the traditional security sense, but I'm willing to bet if you had a choice, you'd rather not have these features on your devices at all. As such, most of the suites below inform you when an app contains too many permissions; some suites go further to detect APIs from aggressive ad networks.
All the suites offer antivirus and antitheft/loss protection, but a few bundle parental control features that specifically target young Android owners. Many security vendors are also going beyond traditional security suites to publish cheap/free standalone utility apps, like a battery life extender or safe QR code scanner. If you can combine practicality with top-notch security, why not?
I've included only Android apps for now, because Apple iOS threats are largely satisfied by tweaking native security settings.
Free, £6.95/year for Premium
A lot of traditional security vendors simply port desktop security to the phone. Not Bitdefender. This app runs quietly in the background of your Android device, but offers only average virus protection according to independent labs AV-test.org. You get what you pay for, I guess.
Free, € 29.95/year for Premium
F-Secure offers top-notch mobile antivirus protection thanks to the boffins plugged in at the world renowned F-Secure Labs. It bundles parental controls and will appeal to parents of Android-wielding children. But there are slicker mobile security apps for adult consumers.
Free, $29.99/year for Premium
You can tell Lookout is the only mobile-only security company in this group. This well-designed app combines an appealing, made-for-mobile UI with powerful antivirus, remote controls, data backup, firewall, and app auditor.
Free, £24.99/year for Premium
It's an aggressive little app that alerts as frequently as a desktop antivirus, but McAfee Mobile offers powerful end-to-end protection. Bonus: unlimited cloud backup.
TrustGo features an excellent app meta-search engine that classifies millions of apps based on threat level, notably intrusive ad networks. This can help you decide which apps are safe to download. However, until I see better malware detection results, I can't trust it to truly safeguard my Android devices.
ESET Mobile Security for Android offers an impressive level of granular controls and some interesting features, like SIM card recognition, but lacks app auditing to inform you of excessive app permissions. If your greatest concern is theft, this is a good one.
LastPass is both a free and premium password manager, and now Premium users can access their vault of encrypted passwords while browsing on an Android device. LastPass for Android features a LastPass browser built on top of the stock Android browser engine; Dolphin HD browser lovers can download a Lastpass plug-in.
Not yet tested
The veteran in desktop Internet filtering just released its first Android app, a free Firefox-based browser that blocks malware and offensive content. Since it's in version 1 it lacks a lot of the granularity of other parental control apps (for instance, you can't select which categories to block), but if you don't want to pay a dime this is one way to go.
NQ Mobile Vault is an easy way to securely hide your most private photos, videos, text messages, and contacts, from snooping friends and lovers.
Not yet tested
Yes, even QR codes can contain malware. If you snap a lot of them, or are curious to try, download this lightweight scanner that not only scans for fake, malicious bar codes, but also blocks malicious websites from automatically loading on your device.
Not yet tested
Trend Micro may be a computer security veteran, but it's developed a free app that will extend your battery life by hours. It doesn't actually add juice, it simply manages battery-draining switches. For instance, the "Just-a-phone" setting turns your smartphone into a dumb one (call/text only) and saves battery by turning off cellular and Wi-Fi connections and dimming your screen.